As interest in education reform grows and evolves, there is an increasing body of research showing that teachers’ unions continue to defend the status quo and their own security and economic interests in the face of new ideas and teaching methods. Many authors and analysts have approached this subject and documentaries such as Waiting for Superman and ¡De Panzazo!, have portrayed union leaders as deeply invested in an old educational system that is less likely to produce students that are prepared for the 21st century job market.

While they are the recipients of many valid criticisms, teachers’ unions are not the only reason why education isn’t improving fast enough in Latin American countries. Faced with many options, political leaders must make choices, spending time and allocating money where they feel it will be beneficial. Education is often not a priority for political leaders because results from education reform may not be measurable for many years and it can be difficult to capitalize on those results and turn them into votes. Even when the political will is there, a lack of resources limits what can be accomplished. In Latin America, the majority of countries are spending around 4-5 percent of their GDP on education and there are those who feel that it is still not enough.

Even with these challenges, the push for education reform in Latin America continues. It is clear that teachers’ unions and their leaders will be a fundamental factor in any reform process, but there is limited research that addresses how teachers’ unions get involved in the reform process and why they are often more influential than any other union in their country.

A new study by Marco Antonio Fernández Martínez, a recent PhD graduate from Duke University, examines the way that teachers’ unions in Mexico interact with politicians and influence the governmental appropriations process. He observes three basic questions: What are the political motivations that drive budgetary decisions on primary, secondary and tertiary education? Who are the beneficiaries of these appropriations? Why are they capable of influencing decisions over appropriations?

Martínez argues that the distribution of education spending across education levels depend on the capacity of organized groups active in this sector to make their demands heard and served by governments. Given the size of teacher unions in Latin America, this allows them to develop and implement strategies that reinforce their economic interests and position in society.

Martínez further points out that by taking their demands to the streets, capturing key positions in the education ministries and by using their mobilization capacity in the electoral arena, teachers are able to make governments cater to their economic interests. His study reveals that the union of primary and secondary school teachers in Mexico, the SNTE, is the most influential organized interest group in Mexico’s education sector. By organizing its members, the SNTE was able to control nearly 50 percent of the ruling political party of Mexico in the 1980s and place its members in 40 percent of the state delegations from the National Secretary of Education. During Vicente Fox’s presidency, leaders of the national teachers’ unions managed to get three allies into cabinet-level positions and the benefits for teachers followed.

There are several new trends that may challenge the traditional power structure in education funding. There are new voices surging in many Latin American countries, including not only business groups and entrepreneurs, but also new NGOs and coalitions of civil society groups that are pressing for more reforms. Technology has a role to play too, helping to generate data-driven education systems, where the decisions are more transparent and the general public has better information about the resource allocation process.

Teachers’ unions will continue to play an important role but they will have less influence in defining future education policies. They are an important voice in choosing new curriculum and skills that students should learn but it’s time that other voices, like parent groups, business organizations and civic groups are involved in the education systems in the region.

Improving education is everybody’s responsibility and concern. It’s time we make it so everyone can participate as well.

Gabriel Sanchez Zinny is the managing director at Blue Star Strategies, Washington, DC, where he focuses his expertise on Latin American and domestic related policy issues. Laura Agosta is a project manager for Formar Foundation, based in Washington, DC.

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